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OSHA Rebuked for Dropping Reactive Chemical Rulemaking

The decision by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to remove from its regulatory agenda reactive chemical hazards, employer payment of personal protective equipment, tuberculosis protection and a number of other standards drew fire at an OSHA oversight hearing yesterday.

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw defended his record by countering that producing standards is still a major priority and that the administration needed to withdraw a number of rules from a regulatory agenda loaded with 58 items - too many for the agency to address in a timely manner. He noted that OSHA has already released four final rules, including signs, signals, and barricades.

"I'm sure you are aware we still have way too many highway fatalities and fatalities of workers in work zones," said Henshaw. OSHA's previous signs standard was promulgated in 1973.

"I think setting standards for reactive chemicals is more important than signs and barricades," asserted Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training, and the only lawmaker who asked questions at the hearing.

In addition to questioning OSHA's commitment to rulemaking and its priorities in setting new standards, Wellstone also expressed concern about OSHA's enforcement activities, noting that there has been a decline in "significant cases" that result in fines greater than $100,000.

Henshaw responded that he is committed to tough enforcement, that the $100,000 limit was "arbitrary," and that inspections and citations increased in 2002.

But much of the back and forth between Wellstone and Henshaw centered on OSHA's decision to drop from its regulatory agenda a proposal to include reactive chemicals in its Process Safety Management standard (29 CFR 1910.119). Wellstone noted that 66 workers died due to reactive chemical hazards between 1992 and 1997, according to a study by the U.S. Chemical Hazard and Investigation Board.

When asked by Wellstone how many lives OSHA estimated it saved by focusing on signs and barricades, Henshaw replied that he didn't know, but that deaths in highway work zones represent a "serious fatality risk."

According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1,093 persons were killed in highway work zones in 2000, and this number includes "at least 163 victims who were probably road construction workers."

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